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Holiday in Hell: Surviving the Abu Sayyaf

In 2000, Monique Strydom and husband Callie were among 21 holidaymakers taken hostage in the Philippines by militant Islamic separatists. ‘We started every day not knowing if we’d be alive that evening. It’s a feeling so terrifying you cannot imagine it.’

Original publication: Tiscali World Online, 2001.

Callie and Monique Strydom

WORLD ONLINE: Monique, in April 2000 your life took an unthinkable change of direction when you and your husband Callie were abducted from a holiday resort and held hostage for 128 days in the Philippines. Until that moment, who had Monique and Callie Strydom been, what were their lives like and what were their aspirations? And who are they now, a year later and back in South Africa?

MONIQUE STRYDOM: We have always been adventurous people – whilst we lived in Malawi for six years we took all the time we could get off to travel as much as possible. Very easygoing, keen to hang out with old friends, and to meet new friends. Also a very liberated couple – Callie allowed me to travel with a friend around the world for three months. Before Jolo we wanted to see the world, and our biggest project was coming back to South Africa from Malawi, setting up house, starting a family and catching up with old friends.

We are still the same people now – with a lot more experience in jungle survival! We have grown up tremendously. We now appreciate even the smallest thing and we are extremely grateful for the second chance we got. We have grown spiritually and have now undertaken to give a year of our lives to travel and witness and spread a positive message. We have founded a charitable trust and are working to assist other people in need – this is our way of thanking the people of South Africa for praying for us and standing by us.

WORLD ONLINE: You've recently published a book, ‘Shooting the Moon, about  your experiences as a hostage. To what does the title refer?

MONIQUE STRYDOM: We lived through two terrible attacks by the military and were absolutely terrified of them. As a result of this we could not cope with rebels shooting – and they did it all the time to unnerve us. One evening we were ready to go to sleep when all of the 5,000 rebels surrounding us started shooting. We were terrified – the girls were hysterical, the Finish hostage started vomiting. We were sure it was the military attacking.

A rebel came to inform us that we had to calm down. Marc went outside to find out what was going on. They then pointed to the moon and told him there was something in front of the moon and that they were shooting at the moon to chase the ‘thing’ away. Marc was astounded to see that it was indeed a lunar eclipse. The rebels were so uneducated that they had no idea of what was going on, and they thought by shooting at the moon they could chase it away. The title has a double meaning – it refers to this incident and also shows that the rebels were actually trying to achieve the impossible by taking us hostage.

WORLD ONLINE: I'd been keeping a bead on the Abu Sayyaf hostage crisis since the beginning of last year [2000], but it had been merely an exotic, slightly eccentric story – strangers doing strange things in a faraway land few South Africans cared about. Then, one morning, the news broke. Something utterly unexpected had happened: a South African couple had been abducted. Suddenly the ‘Philippines hostage drama’ became disturbingly real to South Africans, and for no one more so than you and Callie. What were the thoughts that ran through your mind as you were abducted and the ordeal began unfolding? Did you have any foreboding of what lay in store for you?

MONIQUE STRYDOM: We initially thought they were pirates, robbing the resort – the first thing they did was to steal all our valuables. When they took us to the boats, we had no idea of what was going on. We were terrified and stayed terrified for many more weeks. During the boat trip we were sure that they were pirates kidnapping us for our body parts – initially we did not believe that we were going to live for very long. We had no idea what was waiting for us. It is more like a story – and not reality. When we look back now, we cannot believe what happened to us. Even during our second month, we could not believe it when a reporter told us we might still be there for another three to six months.

WORLD ONLINE: One moment you're enjoying yourself on holiday and minding your own business. The next you're swept up into a global political intrigue as a pawn whose life depends on the actions of powers and players greater than you. It must have been beyond your comprehension that this could have happened to you, that you could have been ripped out of your own life and forcibly made to play a role in the lives of all these other people. Were you struck by a sense of unfairness, and how, if at all, did you come to terms with having been catapulted into a set of events that had, at first, nothing to do with your own life?

MONIQUE STRYDOM: It was extremely difficult to make peace with the fact that all of the sudden we had to listen to uneducated 18-year-olds with guns in their hands. It was really bad seeing the press come into the camp and then leaving us behind again – because we realised that we were not important as Callie and Monique, but a mere number and that it could have been anyone else. Callie always told me that I have to forgive them because they are also being used and that all of it was part of a bigger plan. We read in the Bible many times that God will take revenge and that we need to forgive. When we were released someone told me that you need to separate the man and his deeds, because he is also living a bigger plan. We told ourselves that there is a reason for all of this happening and it really helped making forgiving so much easier.

WORLD ONLINE: The hostage-takers seemed unclear and erratic as to what they wanted. Why were you and the others in fact taken hostage? What was the purpose of these strong-arm actions?

MONIQUE STRYDOM: This is a very old war – 400 years old. Thirty years ago rumours have it that the Marcos regime came into the island, burnt all the land papers and chased these people into the mountains. There is no infrastructure on the island – no law and order. If you do not have a gun, you will not get very far. Kids carry guns from the age of eight! Many nights we could hear fighting, and they would tell us that it is the governor of one region fighting with the mayor of another region. They claim to be fighting a war for independence – with a strong religious motivation. They knew that their demand for independence would never be met and they even told us so. We realised later that they used their religion for personal gain as well, that they did many criminal things in the name of religion.

WORLD ONLINE: How did your abductors behave towards you and the others? What did they do to show everyone they meant business – and did you believe that they would carry out their threats?

MONIQUE STRYDOM: We made a point of striking up conversation with them very early after being taken. We realised that it was important for them to see us as human beings and not only ‘instruments’. They knew they could not kill us, they realised our ‘value’ very early on. They did, however, use every technique in the book to try and break us mentally – little food and water, very little sleep, marches through the jungle, threats and horror stories, for example, that our governments were prepared to ‘sacrifice’ us. They were totally capable of killing us.

In the same period the same group had another group of hostages in Basilan – they beheaded two of the male hostages, raped the female hostage, and tortured and finally killed a priest. We were always aware of the fact that they felt nothing for a human life and that they would kill without blinking an eye. They were very unstable and many days they would start shooting at each other!

WORLD ONLINE: Did your relationship with your hostage-takers change over time? Were some of them very different to the others in the way they treated you?

MONIQUE STRYDOM: We had no relationship with them. We were forced to live with them and that was it. They were all very interested in us – we were the main attraction on the island. They liked the two of us [she and Callie] and Marie. Possibly because we were not stuck-up or difficult and tried to be positive and helped the others. Commander Robot once said to Callie, ‘You are such a good man, if we are ever in a military attack and you are wounded I will carry you’ – a ‘compliment’ coming from a person who really do not feel anything for someone else. But it was true – they had a big respect for Callie. They would always help him to make fire and get dry firewood. If the Finns had to make fire, the rebels would hide the wood! They did not like Stephane initially because he was very aggressive. One day he was threatened with death and he turned around completely.

WORLD ONLINE: Did you hate them? How did your own attitudes towards them change and shift? And did you notice signs of the ‘Patty Hearst’ syndrome, where hostages begin identifying with their captors, justifying the rightness of their actions, and, thanks to a kind of brainwashing, start collaborating with them in various obvious and not-so-obvious ways?

MONIQUE STRYDOM: It was difficult not to hate them – and many days we felt like taking a gun and just shooting them. But we are Christians and Callie always told us we must forgive them. We really did not feel anything for them, apart from feeling sorry for them. We realised that what they did were wrong and could never agree with their course. We definitely did not suffer from the ‘Stockholm syndrome’ – we were all too sober for that. We did, however, during the military attacks, feel much safer with them than with the Philippine military, whom we were sure wanted to wipe us out.

WORLD ONLINE: On the face of things it would seem that there's a double power-relationship operating on the hostage. The first power-relationship is between the hostage and the abductor; the second is between the hostage and the outside players who are being held to ransom by the hostage-takers. In other words, as a hostage you have to wonder whether these outside players care enough about your life to give the hostage-takers what they want – so they've also got power over you. Is this more or less what the situation is actually like? I suppose it's possible that a person might become even more anxious and resentful of these outside players than of the hostage-takers themselves. Your comments?

MONIQUE STRYDOM: We trusted the South Africa task team completely. There were many days that we did not think we would be released, but this was not because of our people. We heard many rumours of ‘official’ negotiators who had their own hidden agendas and that this might have delayed our release. We knew that the South African team did everything in their power to get us out and we lived with them through many of their struggles. We also trusted the Libyan negotiators. We knew that the South African team was working against many odds and that is why we were prepared to wait.

We, however, placed our trust in God and it gave us the strength during many days when there was no news and the situation looked really bad for us. We still believe that there was another force behind the kidnapping and that people who were appointed to help us did not do so, but rather helped themselves and their own pockets. We have made peace with this, realising that these people will one day be judged for what they did – the wheel does indeed turn.

WORLD ONLINE: You went through enormous physical and psychological hardship, much of it inconceivable to the ordinary urban dweller. Would you care to mention a few of the physical deprivations and constraints you suffered so as to give the uninitiated an idea of what you went through?

MONIQUE STRYDOM: It is impossible to really describe what we went through. Looking back now we cannot believe that all those things happened to us. The worst was not running for our lives with mortars exploding around us, or being threatened with death or being without food. To live every day in fear for four months was the worst. We started every day not knowing if we would be alive that evening. It is a feeling so terrifying that you cannot imagine it until you are really in that situation – waiting for death to come, thinking what it will be like and making peace with it.

WORLD ONLINE: You were forced into an extremely coercive environment, but where there any human and humane moments that occurred between the hostages and the abductors?

MONIQUE STRYDOM: There was one rebel called Muhammad, who made the hammocks for us. He really believed in the cause. One day he came home from ‘leave’ and brought us a box of cookies his wife had made. It was so strange and [it was] really difficult to try and understand [the gesture] and to be human in a crazy world. A kind gesture, but in the back of your mind you realise that he is the captor and is taking your life away from you.

One day we received supplies and all the rebels ran to look. The hut we were in was on stilts and the stoep had collapsed because of the weight. Everyone on the stoep fell down, including commander Robot. It was actually very funny and we really laughed because we'd told them all the time that it was going to happen. The rebels took this house from a civilian, and later it was sad to see that none of rebels helped him to fix it – Callie and Stephane helped him.

WORLD ONLINE: The relief you felt on being liberated must be nearly impossible to convey to people who haven't been in a similar situation. What were your thoughts and feelings at that time?

MONIQUE STRYDOM: So many thoughts, and then blank moments. There were initially moments of very mixed feelings, because I had to leave Callie behind. It was like a dream ... Freedom looked so impossible for so many days and when it finally came we could not believe it. We were also really confused about our freedom – we only had freedom when we finally arrived home at our own house. It nearly took a week!

WORLD ONLINE: Have Callie and Monique really come home yet, though? Are there parts of them that are still trapped on the island of Jolo? And what were the problems – practical, psychological – that you experienced on re-integrating into society?

MONIQUE STRYDOM: We are definitely back home! Unfortunately, we will never be able to wipe out Jolo – four months is a long time. We still suffer from the post-traumatic stress, but at least we know why things are happening to us when they do and we know how to cope with them. People only see us when we smile, but we have our ‘off’ moments now and again. It is still very much a reality when you hear that it is not going well with one of the other hostages or the moments when you are forced to relive Jolo.

We had such a tremendous support system when we got back and people were really kind and great – it helped our recovery process. We had difficulty making decisions, not being able to sleep, jumped at any loud sound, always on the lookout, finding it difficult to trust people and very difficult to leave each other. But then I must say that some members of the South African task team also had difficulty driving for the first time in four months! So we all had our little problems getting back to real life.

WORLD ONLINE: It's a question you've been asked a thousand times, I'm sure, but what you kept going throughout the ordeal? How did you cope – and what did you learn about yourself and others in the experience?

MONIQUE STRYDOM: We received many messages and guidelines whilst in the jungle and these really helped us. In our second month we received a magazine from the governor and it had an article in, with the title, ‘What to do when you are a hostage’. This was a very old magazine and was written in the 80s. The most important thing we learnt from that article was to stop looking at yourself and your situation, but instead to go out and help someone else who is worse off than you. By doing that you will find a purpose in life and a reason to live. We practised this rule and it really worked for us. We also held on to our religious beliefs and got many inspirational messages from a Bible that a rebel gave us! I learnt that you have to take responsibility for how you react in any situation and that you need to stay true in what you believe in, no matter what.

WORLD ONLINE: A final question: What does the future hold for you, Monique?

MONIQUE STRYDOM: I hope that the message I am spreading will help someone in need and that we will be able to use this opportunity that has been put in our way, to help others and do some good. I also plan to work on my company again and hopefully have it up and running again very soon – that is, if I can find another hour in the day. I hope for a healthy baby and lots of special moments with him and my gorgeous husband!

 

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